Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Aug 28, 2021
Siev X memorial, Canberra: our refugee policy has a chequered history

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

Contents


The pandemic’s progress


Australia

What does “living with Covid” mean?

Although most states and territories are wisely holding to an elimination approach for now, “Zero Covid” is not possible to maintain for much longer. Just as we have to live with bush flies, the National Party and Irukandji jellyfish, we have to live with Covid.

But there are two understandings of what is meant by “living with Covid”, to do with when we can open up, what “opening up” means, and how much of the damage of Covid we are prepared to tolerate.

One understanding is that there will be occasional or even frequent outbreaks, to which public health authorities respond rapidly with established methods of containment and suppression (test-trace-isolate-quarantine), backed up with public health measures relating to large crowds, ventilation, masks in certain situations, short and localised lockdowns and so on. There will be hospitalisations and there will be deaths, just as there are hospitalisations and deaths from influenza: in occasional influenza outbreaks we experience up to 800 deaths a year. There will be no single “opening up”: changes in controls will be incremental as the trends in vaccination and case numbers become apparent.

The other can be described as “Morrison’s rush to open up”, about which a Canberra Times editorial notes “… the government’s insistence on pressing ahead regardless is not pragmatic – it verges on being a reckless gamble with people’s lives”.  Ever the election campaigner, Morrison wants to create the impression that we are on track to reach “70 percent” and when we get there maybe we can enjoy some imagined “freedom day”, just as Boris Johnson did in the UK. That country is now experiencing about 100 deaths a day, which would scale to about 40 deaths a day or 14 000 deaths a year in Australia. The idea is that the already strained health system would have to cope with the hospitalisations (probably about 400 admissions a day), while the real men in the private sector go ahead with expanding the economy.

At risk of being drowned out by Morrison’s and Berejiklian’s political babble, there are voices of sanity, most notably The Doherty Institute’s Sharon Lewin who clarifies the issue over case numbers: what matters is not the starting numbers as we open up, but the effectiveness of public health measures, helped by the level of vaccination. In one sense Morrison is right when he says that the numbers don’t matter, but that’s only if the test-trace-isolate-quarantine is still working at full effectiveness. She also stresses that we cannot rely on vaccination alone as New South Wales Premier Berejiklian seems to be suggesting.

You can see Sharon Lewin’s explanation on a 2-minute news video or hear it in a seven-minute interview on PM, where she explains how we can have Covid-19 cases without overloading the health care system or incurring an unacceptable number of deaths – in the hundreds over a year perhaps but not the thousands.

The media has made much of what appear to be academic disagreements about the Doherty modelling, including some comments by a group of ANU epidemiologists and economists who warn about the dangers of dropping public health measures.

Melbourne University’s Tony Blakely, interviewed on AM, warns that numbers do count, but he is not disagreeing with Sharon Lewin or the Doherty modelling. His point is that in a situation with high numbers, particularly if they are concentrated in one region as is the present case in Sydney, the test-trace-isolate-quarantine system can break down. Like Lewin, he points out that vaccination alone is a slow method to bring the virus under control; it has to be in association with public health measures. (8 minutes.) Unfortunately Morrison, in an apparent defence of Berejiklian, is simply saying that numbers don’t count.

Norman Swan, on the Health Report, in discussion with Allan Saul of the Burnet Institute, clarifies the Doherty Institute modelling, pointing out that even at moderately high levels of vaccination (such as 80 per cent of the adult population) lockdowns will still be necessary. Lockdowns operate in conjunction with contact-tracing, but the situation is unstable: once contact-tracers can’t keep up and cases are missed, a positive feedback cycle sets in and the system is soon overwhelmed. The Doherty modelling holds for large case numbers nationally, assuming they are reasonably evenly spread, but a regionally-concentrated outbreak, as is happening in western Sydney, or even in country towns such as Shepparton or Dubbo, is another issue. (10 minutes.)

Another warning comes from Emma McBride of James Cook University, who points out that these 70 per cent and 80 percent levels (of adult population) are too low to achieve herd immunity, which probably requires vaccination of at least 85 per cent of the entire population). She has concerns about the Doherty assumptions, including its assumption that the level of vaccination is the same across all regions, demographic groups and age groups: since the Doherty Institute produced its modelling we have become more aware of the incidence of the Delta variant of Covid-19 among children and adolescents. McBride says “we should aim for 100 per cent and be happy with something less than that”. (7 minutes on PM.)

She also has a Conversation article: High priority: why we must vaccinate children aged 12 and over now. One reason for assigning them high priority is that until mid-December they will be at school, where mass vaccinations can be arranged (at least in states where schools are not locked down).

An even more serious warning, from another authoritative source, comes from Stephen Duckett and Anika Stobart of the Grattan Institute: Opening with 70% of adults vaccinated, the Doherty report predicts 1.5K deaths in 6 months. We need a revised plan, published in The Conversation. Like Norman Swan (see above) they take us into the Doherty modelling, pointing out that when the test-trace-isolate-quarantine system fails, cases and deaths increase markedly, as is happening in parts of Sydney. They note that there is a “veil of vagueness” over the National Plan, particularly about what happens at Phase C, when 80 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated and vaccinated people are freed from restrictions. They urge us to go for vaccination of 80 to 90 per cent of the entire population.

Cases

It won’t be long before the number of cases in this outbreak overtakes the accumulated number of cases in the original outbreak and in the Victorian outbreak last year. At the end of June there had been 30 000 cases since the virus first hit our shores.  An extra 17 000 have occurred since then. One limousine driver, working in a state where the government has failed to respond in time, can set off rather a lot of damage.

The New South Wales outbreak is still growing in a close to textbook model of high exponential growth. (For the mathematically obsessed the equation for daily cases is 75.30 x e0.0577 x, where x is the number of days since July 15. The coefficient of correlation is 0.99.)

In theory the harsher restrictions and rising levels of vaccination should be starting to take effect, but if they are taking effect they are being offset by some other force, possibly a reduced effectiveness of contact-tracing: see Allan Saul’s comments above. Our basic curve-fitting identifies a state-wide growth rate of 5.9 per cent daily (that means cases double every 12 days). Saul, who has done some small-region analysis, identifies a higher rate of infection growth in regions where the base number is low, suggesting that rather than responding to the virus’s growth rate, the New South Wales Government is obsessed with high numbers where the virus is established.  (Think of firefighters who put all their resources into a big blaze while ignoring spot fires in areas with heavy fuel loads.)

In an interview on the 730 Report on Monday night, Premier Berejiklian was clearly flustered. The numbers and facts she used do not match reality, she contradicted herself, did not acknowledge that vaccines take time to reduce the virus’s spread, and still seemed to be gripped by the mindset that the virus must be managed by some trade-off or compromise between health and economic objectives. Maybe it’s tiredness, but it may be an indication that she is floundering. Either way it does not instil confidence. (Lest anyone imagine that this is a partisan comment, we point out that Liberal Premiers Gutwein and Marshall seem to understand how to handle the virus when vaccines are in short supply. Nor is it a comment on her gender: Premier Palaszczuk seems to understand the situation very well.)

In a passing comment last week Fran Kelly described the New South Wales approach to the outbreak as “a tale of two Sydneys”, confirmed by journalists Mridula Amin and Tim Swanston reporting for ABC Western Sydney – How Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdown is dividing the city. Their maps show close overlays, matching regions with low income, high rates of infection, harsh lockdowns, and concentrations of essential workers who cannot work from home. The government’s approach of partitioning Sydney with various levels of controls makes a deal of mathematical sense – it’s what a farmer would do when there is an outbreak of brucellosis in a cattle herd – but such handling of people violates norms of procedural fairness.

Victoria too is having trouble containing the virus. It has only about 50 to 80 cases a day, but few of those are in quarantine, some cannot be linked to existing cases, and its case growth rate is faster than New South Wales’s. It’s about where New South Wales was in early July. Melbourne University epidemiologist James McGaw believes that Victoria will be unable to eliminate the virus. But because the state locked down earlier Victoria will have fewer weeks of lockdown than New South Wales before vaccination starts to take effect (assuming vaccination proceeds at the same pace in all states).

The ACT seems to have a controllable number of cases. It’s a small territory without the pockets of deep disadvantage that have kicked the virus along in Sydney and Melbourne.  If the restrictions are causing a little inconvenience for public servants in Treasury and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, particularly those who have been writing speeches for Frydenberg and Morrison, that can be no bad outcome.

The greatest problems are in non-metropolitan regions in New South Wales and Victoria, particularly among relatively unvaccinated indigenous people.

As for the other states, they are not hiding under the doona as Morrison and Berejiklian would say. They are sensibly maintaining strong controls until they can get vaccination to a high level, unless their border controls are breached before that time. That seems like wise public policy.

Vaccination

My dream is to have us be the most vaccinated country in the world. …  I think we can actually achieve well over 90 per cent vaccine coverage. …  We need to make sure that people that perhaps are homeless, people that maybe have other priorities in their life, or other issues impacting on their health and wellbeing, that we actually support them for  vaccination, because I think we can see that if you have pockets of low vaccination in our community we will continue to struggle and we know how infectious Delta is – it will rip through any undervaccinated areas.

Kerry Chant, New South Wales Chief Health Officer on PM

From a national perspective vaccination is proceeding quickly. Every week sees three or four more percent of the population with two-dose vaccination. The rate of uptake of first-dose vaccination, a forecast of full vaccination rates in a few weeks, is even higher.

Politicians can rightly boast that our pace of vaccination is among the world’s highest. But these are the early and easy days: as the percentages get higher the task becomes more difficult. Some countries hit limits at around 50 or 60 per cent levels. And as the graph below shows, the big growth so far has been among the half of the population aged 40 and over. (Note that in comparison with similar graphs in previous weeks, this has a two-week interval between bars.) Most of the younger and more mobile Australians are still waiting for their first dose.  There’s a lot of white space between those bars and 70 per cent of the adult population, let alone the higher figures we really need.

It is highly probable that, in view of the declining effectiveness of vaccination over time, Australians will be offered booster shots in 2022.

Covid politics

Many lazy or partisan journalists have fallen for Morrison’s media bait about 70 and 80 per cent figures, whatever they mean.  Are they milestones, suggesting a transition from one level of measures to another in the process of opening up, or are they perhaps targets, suggesting that at 80 percent Morrison plans to stand behind a banner saying “Mission Accomplished”? We are quite used to hearing Morrison trying to mislead us, but it is disappointing to read and hear journalists, including many on the ABC, using these 70 and 80 per cent figures without qualification.

We stress that these are percentages of the adult (16 +) population. In round numbers, 5 million of 25 million Australians are under 16. That means these percentages refer only to 20 million Australians, or 80 per cent of our whole population. To convert the 70 and 80 per cent numbers from Liberal Party spin to meaningful numbers, multiply them by 0.8 (or 4/5). That means they refer to real figures of 56 per cent and 64 per cent vaccination.

That’s one reason why Doherty staff and independent academics are stressing that at these levels there will still have to be strong public health controls in place, and that we have to push well beyond them to have anything even approaching herd immunity.

One might wonder why Morrison seems to be resting at these low figures, which would leave 44 per cent and 36 per cent of Australians unvaccinated.  (It’s better to think of who is not vaccinated than who is. The difference between 90 and 95 per cent vaccination does not seem to be much, but the difference between 10 and 5 per cent unvaccinated is proportionately huge – a factor of 2:1.)

Perhaps Morrison is concerned with supply: we may not have enough mRNA vaccine on order to reach high levels, particularly seeing the needs of young people have only recently started to be considered.

Or maybe he doesn’t want to push a pro-vaccination line too strongly, lest he alienate the anti-vaccination movement. The hooligans and hangers-on attending anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown rallies last week make up a far-right group ready to be harvested by the Liberal Party, if not in direct votes, then through preference deals with parties on the right fringe, an Australian version of Trumpian tactics. Morrison has demonstrated that he will always place the interest of the Coalition’s survival in government ahead of the national interest. His is the politics of the Faustian deal.

Morrison is using all the spin he can muster to reposition himself as the “leader” who can take us out of our Covid-19 misery, if not into a bright future then at least to the Australia of the Liberal Party’s vision – an Australia where we are relaxed and comfortable, insular, politically disengaged, content with mediocrity, and where we know our place in society. We should “move on”, forgetting that his government neglected border security, protection of the frail aged, and delivery of vaccines, resulting in a thousand avoidable deaths and a terrible hit to our economy.

But he cannot sweep it all under the carpet, and just this week there was another reminder of the Commonwealth’s negligence: The Inspector-General of Biosecurity Report into the Ruby Princess Incident in March 2020, in which negligence by the Commonwealth, in allowing infected passengers to dissipate through the community, seeded the first major Covid-19 outbreak.


The rest of the world

Cases

Below is another week’s update on world cases and deaths. We have already commented on the limitations of case data, and the WHO data on deaths, gathered from national governments, is stretching our credulity. How is it that Africa, with 17 per cent of the world’s population (largely unvaccinated) accounted for only 7.5 per cent of deaths last week?

Vaccination

Worldwide about a quarter of the population has been fully vaccinated, but in poorer countries people are yet to receive their first dose. None of Africa’s four largest countries – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt and the Congo – have achieved more than 2.5 per cent vaccination. At the same time some countries, including countries that got in early with vaccination such as Israel, are planning to give booster shots as the protection of vaccines wears off.

WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus has called for richer countries to pause on booster shots, so that scarce supplies can be sent to poorer countries, at least to vaccinate health care workers as a priority. This is not just about charity; it’s also about self-interest in poor and rich countries alike, because it is among the unvaccinated that new and possibly more deadly strains and vaccine-resistant variants are likely to arise.

Last week we plotted a scatter diagram of vaccination levels and deaths in “developed” countries, and asked readers to suggest why some countries – particularly France and the UK – had such high death rates. One compelling suggestion related to mobility: people from these countries are getting around on holidays.

Another reader suggested we look at the USA, a natural experiment with 50 states which have vaccination levels ranging from 37 per cent to 67 per cent of the population (67 per cent is just a bit higher than our 80 per cent of the adult population).  We plotted deaths against vaccination and found a clear pattern:

Then we looked at hospitalisation and found an even stronger pattern:

There are no marks for guessing which states are on different ends of the vaccination axis.  Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, West Virginia and Idaho are the 5 states with less than 40 per cent vaccination. Four Yankee states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont – all have vaccination rates of 65 per cent or higher. And we should explain the outlier at the very top with 52 per cent vaccination and a very high death rate: it’s Florida.

Note, on both charts, the significant difference between the 50-60 per cent band and the 60-70 per cent band, particularly in relation to hospitalisation, a strong indicator of the demands on states’ health systems.

Inferences for Australia

One inference we can cautiously draw from these diagrams is that there are significant benefits in pushing vaccination rates up to high levels. Another, which should be of concern in Australia, is that even the most vaccinated US states still have daily death rates in the order of 1.0 per million. In Australia that would translate to about 25 deaths a day or 9000 a year. For every death there are generally around 10 hospitalisations, and those hospitalisations are often long-stay.

Figures from mainland Europe are more promising, where many countries with vaccination levels between 50 and 70 per cent have death rates down between 0.2 and 0.5 per million. But American and European numbers need to be treated with caution, because many people have some level of immunity resulting from early exposure to Covid-19, and many European countries and some American regions still have significant public health restrictions in place.

A crucial question for all countries is the level of vaccination to be obtained. With 81 per cent of the population fully vaccinated Malta is close to the world’s most vaccinated country. An additional 1 per cent of Maltese have received one dose, implying that Malta may top out at 82 per cent. Another country with high vaccination is Singapore, with 76 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, and another 4 per cent who have received one dose, implying that it will top out at 80 per cent.

These may be the limits for now when one considers that in most countries children under 12 are not vaccinated, that there are some who should not be vaccinated for health reasons, and that there are some die-hard (literally) anti-vaxxers. Nevertheless, 80 per cent of the whole population is a much better achievement than our 56 per cent and 64 per cent milestones (70 and 80 per cent in Liberal Party spin).


Data sources

See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including data on vaccination and the WHO Covid-19 epidemiological updates.


Economics


The cost of keeping coal-fired electricity capacity

The Energy Security Board, with backing from Angus Taylor, proposes charging electricity users so that coal and gas power plants can be paid to have capacity available, regardless of how often that capacity is used to generate electricity. That could result in an increase in household bills in the order of $200 to $400 a year – much greater than the cost of Australia’s short-lived carbon tax.

That’s a finding of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis assessment of the ESB’s proposal. While acknowledging the need to ensure energy security, the IEEFA points to better ways to prevent interruptions to power supply – through energy storage (grid and household batteries), better demand management, pricing reform, and stronger regulation on generators to give notice of plant retirement.


The pampered finance sector

When Kenneth Hayne’s report on banking, superannuation and financial services was delivered in early 2019, Morrison and Frydenberg promised to act on all of Hayne’s recommendations. For a little while it seemed that the Liberals were prepared to enact some meaningful reforms on our pampered and bloated finance sector. But, it went cold on economic reform when its mates in the finance sector brought a little pressure on the government.

Helen Bird of Swinburne Law School, writing in Inside Story –  Banking their winnings – goes through Hayne’s 41 recommendations to the Commonwealth, pointing out which ones have been adopted, watered down, ignored, or postponed. Recommendations which would have made finance executives take personality for their actions have been watered down. On responsible lending the government actually wants to reduce the effectiveness of existing laws: lending money to people who will struggle to repay is fuelling a boom in asset prices, which the Liberal Party wants us to believe is economic growth.

The biggest beneficiaries of the Liberals’ largesse have been mortgage brokers, whose remuneration depends on commissions from brokering large and expensive loans, rather than attending to borrowers’ interests. Because they enjoy the sacred classification of “small business” they can be assured that the Liberal Party will always place their interests over the interests of borrowers.


Wages

Over the week Pearls and Irritations readers have drawn our attention to three writings on wages.

In The Conversation Peter Martin writes about indicators of wage growth. The title of his article – The official figures say wages aren’t growing: here’s why they’re wrong – gives the impression that he’s gainsaying assertions, based on ABS data, that wage growth is stagnant. In fact he’s simply drawing attention to limitations in average weekly earnings data, a series sensitive to the unemployment rate. If, as can be the case in a recession, the poorest paid lose employment, they are taken out of the base and the average pay of those still in work rises. That’s a false representation of workers’ experience.  He advocates use of the ABS wage cost index, an indicator of what employers actually pay for each job classification (i.e. independent of changing composition), as an indicator of wage movements.

One prominent feature of the US in comparison with Australia and most other prosperous countries is the weakness of its minimum wage provisions. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has a short article on the US minimum wage: The $26 [US] an hour minimum wage. Its main feature is a chart showing that until around 1970 the minimum wage kept pace with labour productivity, but has been falling ever since, while productivity has continued its upward trend. If the poorest paid workers aren’t enjoying the fruits of productivity gains, others are profiting from their labour. It’s a simple but powerful analysis.

Daniel Ziffer, the ABC business reporter who often presents the financial news on ABC TV News, has a short article on the CEO pay ratio: the small number that could change a lot.  He reminds us that US and UK companies must produce a CEO pay ratio revealing to the public and to shareholders how many multiples of the median worker’s wage they pay to the boss, but there is no such requirement in Australia. From data collected (but not published) by the Australian Shareholders’ Association he reveals some of the highest pay ratios in Australia. It’s not about envy: rather it’s about the incentive-destroying culture that prevails in a company when most workers believe the remuneration structure is unfair.


Let’s not overlook wealth

Those seeking a more just and sustainable distribution of the benefits of economic activity often focus on income. “Income distribution” seems to flow easily off the tongue, and there is no shortage of ABS and Tax Office data on income. But there is more to economic inequality than income inequality.

The Australia Institute draws our attention to the distribution of wealth in a paper The Intergenerational Report ignores booming wealth and capital gains. The government’s recently released 2021 Intergenerational Report(a badly misnamed document that covers only a series of fiscal projections) is all about the supposed burden an ageing population will place on taxpayers. It assumes, in line with neoliberal philosophy, that our taxation capacity is and should be tightly constrained: austerity now is the only way to fund this future burden.

The Australia Institute paper reminds us that long periods of income inequality, and taxation policies privileging capital gains, have seen a massive increase in Australians’ wealth and the inequality in that increase. There is a strong case for a wealth tax (as recommended by Piketty) and for treating capital gains the same way as other income is taxed.  (We had such tax neutrality until 1999 until the Howard Government abandoned it, reportedly because Treasurer Costello got confused by indexation.)

The only qualification that should be applied to the Australia Institute analysis is that a great deal of that increase in wealth is actually asset price inflation, particularly in housing and less so in the stock market. Much could disappear just as quickly as it has arisen.


Afghanistan and beyond


Pakistan – the Taliban’s nursery

One starting point to understanding the Taliban’s success in re-conquering Afghanistan is in Pakistan in 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq deposed, and later murdered, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto in a military coup. Up to that point Pakistan had been taking early steps towards establishing a pluralist and secular order. Zia’s coup, described by some as the “Sharization” of Pakistan, was a distinct shift to a hard-line authoritarian and theocratic order.

That’s where Stan Grant starts in his article The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul shines a light into Pakistan and its ‘deadly embrace’ with the US. “You can draw a line from Pakistan to the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of Al Qaeda, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bali bombings, similar attacks in London and across Europe” he writes. He describes how Zia funnelled money into madrassas, which were to become the training camps for the Taliban, home-grown and Afghani. He traces the flow of Saudi money and US military equipment that supported Pakistan’s powerful security agency, the ISI. “American money was being used to seed terror networks which in decades to come would strike the US itself.”


Afghanistan as an instalment in the futile “war on terror”

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama Administration, writes in Foreign Affairs Them and us: how America lets its enemies hijack its foreign policy. The collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan is just the latest instalment in America’s ongoing “war on terror” initiated in response to the 9/11 attacks.

He writes that the war on terror was not only a new focus of foreign policy; it also led to a fundamental reshaping of American national identity and domestic policy. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was a country bereft of the unifying sense of purpose that the Cold War had fostered.” He goes on to write that “The jingoistic nationalism of the immediate post-9/11 era morphed into a cocktail of fear and xenophobia that eventually produced a president, Donald Trump, who paid lip service to ending wars abroad and repurposed the rhetoric of the war on terror to attack a shifting cast of enemies at home.”

He calls for the “post 9/11 enterprise” to be dismantled, and a “revitalization of democracy” at home.

Rhodes is author of After the fall: being American in the world we’ve made.


Understanding the Taliban

Phillip Adams commits the whole 50 minutes of Late Night Live to a discussion with experts who have devoted themselves over many years to understanding the Taliban: The Taliban conquer Afghanistan.  The Taliban are no liberal democrats, but neither are they medieval madmen. In rural regions they are simply carrying on with long-established extremely conservative practices. Part of their attraction to Afghanis, worn down by corruption and the weak rule of law of the government, has been their imposition of a strict rule of law. Their values and brutality however do not align with the hopes, aspirations and experiences of urban Afghanis. It’s a much more urbanised country than the one the Taliban controlled twenty years ago.


Cricket must go on

A Reuters press release states that the Taliban will ensure that Afghanistan upholds its commitment to participate in cricket matches with Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Men’s cricket that is.


The far right and other fake news mongers


Nazis and Mixed Martial Arts

We probably think of gymnasiums as places where people go to maintain their physical fitness, but there is a sub-set of gymnasiums, offering “mixed martial arts (MMA)”, that are recruiting grounds for far-right extremists. Men only, preferably heavily tattooed.

Nick McKenzie and Joel Tozer, writing in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, provide us with a “who’s who” of far-right movements in Australia From kickboxing to Adolf Hitler: the neo-Nazi plan to recruit angry young men. The authors have been helped by defectors and at least one mole within these groups. From one perspective the far right appears to be fragmented, but the separate groups have well-established connections with Nazi and other white supremacist groups in the US, while MMA gymnasiums and boxing clubs seem to act as recruiting grounds for a number of sub-movements.


The limits of free speech

The rise of the far right in democracies has brought to the fore a perennial debate about the limits of free speech, particularly when extremist rhetoric becomes an incitement to violence, as occurred in the January 6 assault on the US Capitol. It is similarly an issue when those with a public pulpit endanger lives by undermining public health campaigns.

Writing in The Conversation Denis Muller of the University of Melbourne describes how provisions of our Electoral Act provide easy protection for those who enjoy the cover of membership of a registered political party when they spout fake news. He refers in particular to Craig Kelly’s intention to join Palmer’s United Australia Party “in order to fund his damaging ravings on a grander scale” – Craig Kelly’s move to Palmer’s United Australia Party shows the need for urgent electoral law reform.

It’s not a clear-cut issue, but drawing on the philosophies of JS Mill, John Locke and Karl Popper he argues that there should be restrictions on speech “that causes provable harm to the public welfare in pursuit of election to parliament”.


Examining misinformation

The ABC has launched a new radio series This much is true, taking aim at misinformation and conspiracy theories. Social media allow people to form their own bubbles around weird theories and misinformation, and a belief that they are holding out against powerful forces bent on evil. There is a nine-minute introduction to the series on ABC Breakfast.

The first session, on Sunday 22 August, was about what is called the Tradwife movement – a movement based on an idealized model of women happily living in a world where they are subservient to men, perform their duties in “the little house on the prairie”, and are contemptuous of any relationships and roles other than traditional marriage. In the US in particular the movement has been closely associated with support for Trump, and has attracted white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, ready to employ any means to defend traditional values against an imagined assault from the “left”. (35 minutes.)

That session seems to have focussed on an extreme right-wing fringe, while not acknowledging the complexity of domestic relationships, or that women and men can have many roles. There are liberal, left-wing women who dedicate a large part of their lives to child rearing; there are conservative women in homosexual relationships; and the patriarchy has not confined women on the hard right to domestic duties: our attorney-general and our foreign minister come to mind.

Nevertheless it may be worth giving future sessions of the series consideration.


Refugees


We can do more for Afghans

Speaking on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report Tim Costello calls for us to be more welcoming of refugees fleeing persecution from the Taliban. Australian Christian leaders call for the PM to increase refugee intake from Afghanistan. He invokes the spirit of Liberal Prime Ministers Menzies and Fraser, and reminds us that as a child, Jesus was a refugee from Herod’s tyranny. A group of prominent Christians has called on the government to offer a safe haven not only to Afghans who directly assisted the Coalition forces, but also to others, including Shia minorities, who are almost certain to suffer under the Taliban.  (10 minutes.)


Community sponsorship as a model

The ABC’s Rachel Mealy reports on the work of people involved with Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia, who are advocating community sponsorship as a model for re-settling refugees. It’s a system, successfully used in Canada, that results in private individuals rather than taxpayers covering the costs of refugee settlement, allowing more people to be taken in: Afghanistan refugees could be housed through community sponsorship.


Remember the Tampa?

Twenty years ago Arne Rinnan, captain of the Norwegian Freighter Tampa, rescued 433 mostly Afghan asylum-seekers from a boat sinking in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Australia. In defiance of international law the Howard Government refused to allow them to land in Australia, thus establishing the “Pacific Solution”.

On the ABC RN Breakfast program, Fran Kelly interviewed Abbas Nazari who was on that boat, and is now leading a full and successful life New Zealand, and has recently been awarded a Fulbright scholarship. After the Tampa: what happened to hundreds of refugees rejected by Australia. He describes his own journey and what he is now hearing from his friends and relatives in Afghanistan: it isn’t pretty. In all charity to Australia he asks us to put aside the politics of fear and division, to take in refugees from Afghanistan, and to grant an opportunity for Afghanis presently here on temporary protection visas to make a permanent life here. (13 minutes.)

Nazari is author of After the Tampa : From Afghanistan to New Zealand.


Polls and elections


News for journalists: it’s not a two-horse race

Journalists seem to be unable to break from the idea that federal elections have to deliver a winner-take-all outcome for Labor or the Coalition. The 2010 election, which saw Julia Gillard form a government with the support of minor parties and independents, left journalists discombobulated. They referred to the outcome as a “hung parliament” (a weird term) as if it was the end of democracy as we know it.

In fact it is very unusual for executive government to have control of parliament. Apart from a brief period from 2004 to 2007, when the Coalition had a slim senate majority, we have to go back to the 1950s before the DLP emerged from a Labor split to find an executive government with full support of parliament. And for the last thirty years there have been more independents and members of minor parties elected to the House of Representatives, as shown in the graph below.

This is a manifestation of a 70-year slide in the combined Coalition plus Labor vote – a slide that has picked up pace in the last 30 years.

On last week’s Saturday Extra, Geraldine Doogue interviewed Carolyn Hendricks of ANU and Jennifer Curtin of the University of Auckland (formerly she was with the University of Canberra) on the impact of independents on Australian democracy. Urban independents tend to run in Liberal-held seats on issues where the Liberal Party has failed – climate change, refugees, corruption – while rural independents tend to run on broad issues of local representation and political processes, including corruption. The session concluded with observations on funding and related issues that tend to favour established political parties. (13 minutes.)

The program drew attention to the very successful Voices for Indi campaign. There are at least 33 other “Voices for” or “Voices of” movements in Australia, most of which have come together in the last two years. Cathy McGowan has written a handbook about how to get elected and how to be effective once elected: Cathy goes to Canberra: doing politics differently.


Voting intention – mixed messages

Willian Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on two surveys, one suggesting that the Coalition would be thrashed with a 54:46 two party preferred vote for Labor, the other suggesting that the Coalition would win an election with a 51:49 two party preferred vote.

The Morgan poll has both parties on a primary vote of 37.5 per cent, and therefore Labor in a strong winning position once Green preferences are distributed. This confirms a trend, evident in Newspoll surveys over the last ten months, and revealed in Bowe’s BludgerTrack, of a gain for Labor at the expense of the Coalition.

By contrast the Resolve Strategic poll has the Coalition on a primary vote of 40 per cent and Labor on a primary vote of 32 per cent. These are little different from the 2019 election outcomes – Coalition 41.4 per cent and Labor 33.3 per cent. Resolve Strategic has been polling only since April this year, showing a slight improvement for the Coalition over that period.

The Resolve Strategic poll has some surprising results, for example revealing that voters rank the Coalition ahead of Labor on education, and on health and aged care, and that the Coalition is seen as “communicating well”. It also reveals that only 17 per cent of voters see “an issue of policy” influencing their vote, suggesting that the Coalition’s massive bungles on quarantine and vaccination, and numerous revelations of corruption in the Coalition, have no relevance for the electorate. Notably, it classifies 27 per cent of voters as “uncommitted”.  William Bowe has some further explanations for the poll’s anomalies.


Handling Covid-19

David Crowe, political correspondent for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, reports on a Resolve Strategic poll about what people think of state premiers and the prime minister in their handling of the Covid outbreak. Unsurprisingly Berejiklian comes out worst (26 per cent “well” or “very well”), ahead of Morrison (38 per cent). Palaszczuk and Andrews score 51 and 52 per cent respectively.

William Bowe reports on a related Resolve Strategic poll about easing Covid restrictions. In response to a vaguely worded question (see Bowe’s analysis) 62 per cent of respondents are in favour of easing restrictions when certain vaccination percentages are met. That’s hardly surprising, but what is surprising is Michelle Grattan’s interpretation of polling, which she sees as having energised Morrison and left Albanese “lumbering”.


Malaysia has a new Prime Minister

There’s another country in our region that churns through prime ministers between elections – Malaysia. Ismail Sabri Yaakob has taken over from Muhyiddin Yassin who in turn took over from Mahathir Mohamed, who became prime minister in the 2018 election.

On Late Night Live Philip Adams interviews James Chin of the University of Tasmania about the transition – the process by which a new Prime Minister is elected  by the parliament (remember they have their own king) and the politics of the transition: Malaysia swears in new PM amid COVID crisis. It’s a conservative move, in a country that in recent months has been hit hard by Covid-19, with the middle class bearing much of the economic pain. With half the population fully vaccinated, however, they are well ahead of Australia and expect to be closer to a fully vaccinated population by the end of the year.


Webinars

Australia Institute webinars

Tuesday 31 August, 1300 AEST: Katharine Murphy, Pete Lewis, and Ebony Bennett “Poll position” – a discussion of polling trends and methods.  (This webinar is held every two weeks as issues unfold.)

Wednesday 1 September, 18:00 AEST: “Go big: how to fix our world” with Wayne Swan and Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK Labour Party.

The webinars are free, but registration is essential. See the Institute’s seminars webpage.


Refugees again

If you have a half hour to spare you might care to watch an Australian Story about an event at a time when our treatment of refugees was guided by moral principles.  (John Menadue is too modest to say much about his own role in these events.)


If you have comments, corrections, or links to other relevant sources, we’d like to hear from you.  Please send them to Ian McAuley — ian, at the domain name ianmcauley.com

See Michael West Media for more analysis of these and other economic and political issues, and watch out for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.

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